Plum Cake Muffins
Making a Strong Case to Have Cake for Breakfast
Every year as summer begins to wind down (we’re not quite there yet - don’t worry!), I start to crave Marian’s plum cake. Maybe you do too?
For anyone not familiar, Marian Burros is a legendary American food writer who wrote for the NY Times’ Food Section for many years. She is best known for a plum torte recipe she first published in 1983, and subsequently republished (at the urging of readers who had misplaced their clipped copy of the recipe from the year before) at the end of every summer until 1989. Her cake went viral long before going viral was a thing.
Marian isn’t my mother or grandmother. But in a way, her plum cake feels like something I, and so many other people, directly inherited - like a collective family recipe. (Have you ever made it? Let me know in the comments!)
The cake’s mass appeal, I think, has something to do with its simplicity - a quick, no frills batter of butter, flour, eggs, and sugar that serves as the base for the small, dark purple prune plums that come into season in early September. It takes minutes to make and about an hour in the oven, and rewards the baker’s efforts with a tender, just-sweet-enough crumb, and pockets of molten fruit.
There’s also something deeply nostalgic about Marian’s plum cake, even if (like me) you did not grow up eating it. With a cake so elemental, everyone will have their own point of connection. For me, it is reminiscent of so many other Ashkenazi Jewish cakes that straddle the line between dessert, breakfast, and snack time - like my mom’s perfect apple cake, or the Hungarian sour cherry cake I learned to make while researching recipes for The Jewish Cookbook.
Plum cakes (called either pfalumenkuchen or zwetschgenkuchen in Yiddish/German) are beloved across Central Europe. Jewish families hailing from Alsace, Germany, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic all enjoyed versions of plum cake, and traditionally served them for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot.
In The German-Jewish Cookbook, the mother-and-daughter team, Garbrielle Rossmer Gropman and Sonya Gropman write, “Zwetschgenkuchen is, without doubt, the most popular pastry or cake mentioned by the German Jews we spoke to about their food memories. Seemingly everyone had an oma (grandmother) who spent time in the kitchen making it.” Their recipe skews more towards a tart than a cake, but is definitely a cousin to Burros’ version.
Messing with Perfection = The Ideal Summer Muffin
Nearly 40 years after she first published it, Marian’s plum cake has become culinary canon. Sure, you can add a pile lemon zest to the batter, or chop up some crystalized ginger to sprinkle over top - but doing so simply dresses up an already perfect recipe.
The time for Marian’s cake will be here before we know it. But right now, we are still more than a month away from when Italian prune plums begin to show up in the farmer’s markets. Honestly, that’s just too long to wait. I want my plum cake now!
With a countertop literally overflowing with stone fruit varieties that come into season earlier in the summer, including some fragrant red-fleshed plums, I set out to create a muffin inspired by Marian’s cake. In addition to letting me get my plum cake fix a bit early, muffins take significantly less time to bake than a full cake. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, anything that reduces the total time my oven is on during the summer is a welcome thing.
I ended up pulling inspiration from two iconic recipes - Marian’s plum cake, of course, but also the Perfect Blueberry Muffins from Smitten Kitchen. I increased the sugar just a little, to compensate for plums’ natural tartness. I also added a spoonful of (entirely optional!) ground flax seed to give them some nutritional oomph, since we mostly eat these muffins for breakfast.
Verdict: They. Are. WONDERFUL! Soft and light, fragrant with cinnamon, and crammed with bites of jammy plum. These are destined to be on repeat all summer long, tiding me over until the farmer’s market tables begin to tell the story of fall.
If you really, *really* don’t want to bake right now - make my favorite, 3-minute, Peach and Plum Kuchen Toast. All the juicy summer flavor, with absolutely none of the oven time.
And for my gluten free readers: I haven’t tried making these muffins gluten free yet (though I imagine a gf all-purpose would probably do just fine.) But these Almond Flour Apple Muffins, which I shared way back in the early days of this newsletter, are delightful!
Plum Cake Muffins
Makes 9 muffins
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